“Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much…much…better.”
– Laurie Anderson, Performance Artist

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Some have called Monterey car week overwhelming; some said extravagant; others uttered garish. But if there was one word to describe the opening event – the Concours on the Avenue – in Carmel-By-The-Sea, it might be intimate. The Intimate Extravaganza. Both understated and lavish, common and exotic, intimate and glittery, perhaps more than any other, it was – and will remain – the “must see” event of the week, mostly for its openness and accessibility. The event is free to attend.

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For beginners, it’s a preview of what Monterey is all about. Arrive early enough and the rewards are a good parking spot and a chance to see some very rare exotic cars line up for their entrance onto Ocean Avenue. One treat is watching the odd dance that is the judges meeting, a diverse group of automotive experts from around the planet who gather in common regalia – blue blazer, khaki slacks, dark tie, and straw hat – to pass judgment over some of the most pampered cars and finicky car owners in the world. There are opportunities to watch some of the premier sponsors set up their displays, get coffee and a pastry before the lines escalate and even be privy to some interesting travel and restoration stories during a time of day when people are still speaking in whispers rather than attempting to shout over the roar of engines and the din of the crowd.

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As the cars came down the line, observers began to understand the scale and depth of Monterey Car-Week in comparison to any other car event in the world. Eventually the earlier hushed tones and muted colors shifted to a mood akin to New York fashion week.

At 9am, the first cars were directed to move forward to the intersection of Ocean and San Carlos, where they met their escorting golf carts to guide them through the crowds. No gauche horns or sirens to move people out of the way here. The blue-blazered judges cleared the masses with tiny finger bells, which surprisingly gathered more attention for their diminutive clear chime.

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This year, the Ocean/San Carlos corner also was the display point for two high-end auction houses who were exhibiting Steve McQueen’s last-purchased Porsche and a gaggle of classic Ferraris. The crowd gathered there to “ooh” and “aah” over every automotive masterpiece to grace the streets and to gossip about their own latest travels and acquisitions. Grab coffee and croissant early; part of the scene is to see and be seen.

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Eventually, as the participants parked, the time arrived to wander the streets. No doubt there were things not noticed while gossiping with friends. For instance this year featured two different marques and models. The original Shelby GT350 was feted, as were Porsches up to 1989 (pre-964). That meant hearing the thunder of those remarkable deep-throated 289s as they roared their ways into place, but also appreciating the simple lines of the nimble, smaller air-cooled, rear-engined cars that made so huge an impact on automotive history.

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Many of the Shelby cars – Mustangs or Cobras – were and are still racecars and are fitted out as such, though now, with their extreme values, they are much more pampered than in the old days when the cars were known for being rough-and-tumble door-bangers.

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For those in the know, the Porsche 356s and early 911s also have taken on a golden aura in the last few years, with high desirability driving previously unthought-of values. Market-driven pricing has turned the early cars into portfolio stuffers for some people and has driven others to drive their cars even harder, still insisting that the cars are meant for adding miles, not dollars. The worn-patina look made popular in recent years by the hot-rod set has invaded the Porsche world and it was well represented on Ocean Avenue in Carmel.

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What about the other school? There are teams of people who restore and maintain 30 to 60 year-old cars to immaculate, perfect condition; labor-intensive, almost heroic efforts restored cars that slowly were dissolving into desert sands or forest floors and now visitors see them presented as cars most likely to be housed in climate-controlled, well-dressed show-rooms of private collectors. To respect the marque is to appreciate the care and expense people are taking to maintain these beautifully simple cars and their place in history.

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Think also about the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi or “the sad gray beauty of everyday use” as expressed by the faded paint, torn seat-leather, and worn carpet apparent on some of these “preservation” specials. Some are recent barn-finds, some are original purchases, single-owner cars that have been nursed through the decades. And some people are still using their cars as daily drivers.

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After poring over every inch of favorite cars, it was time to look around. Even the most died-in-the-wool Porsche fan wandered through the long lines of exotic Ferraris, the sports racing cars from Lotus and Lola, the classics from Bentley, Duesenberg, and other marques long forgotten, but if that’s all anyone did, they missed out. Certainly, everyone was a little excited by the razzle of the dazzle; it’s part of why they came to Ocean Avenue. But the Tuesday automotive festival in Carmel also was and is known for people watching, an energetic art-scene, and exquisite food. Just going to look at cars would be like visiting Paris to study bridges.

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There were renowned automotive artists painting live on the scene. Famous personalities and dedicated collectors – not mutually exclusive – discussed their latest acquisitions and restoration projects. It’s almost impossible to not duck into a gallery to see if that painting is a REAL Matisse (it is) or to see if washing your panini down with a bottle of Pelegrino outside that famous jewelry establishment qualifies as a breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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For those who haven’t left after a couple hours, even more subtleties appeared. There were countless vignettes: There was the Lincoln fitted with a DeSoto grille with one gold-tooth. The intake trumpets, plug-wires, and polished bolts on some of the racing engines take on the aura of mechanical gardens, gloriously polished tulips atop a heap of organic engineering, imagined well before the use of software as a tuning device. A dirty old rope hung off the motorized prairie schooner, presumably used for horse-towing the car out of a mud-bog. Wooden hoops of folding cabriolet tops, the fine craftsmanship in every vintage hood-ornament, and the kind of shaping that made car marques unique and instantly identifiable.

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It’s impossible not to eavesdrop on conversations of recent travels or of an epic team effort to restore a one-off classic. Were there a few snobs? Sure. But on Tuesday most of the car owners were eager to talk about their entries. Some have home-made scrapbooks detailing their efforts to bring some rusting and rotting old bits back to life, some have commissioned private books to document the provenance of the car for the judges or for potential future owners, should the car leave the family…

Gradually, attention shifted from the scene at hand to a drive long planned – maybe the legendary 17 Mile Drive from Carmel to Monterey – or dinner plans or the agenda for the rest of the week, all of which somehow involved a set of cars at a show or an auction or maybe the Rolex Historic Reunion at nearby Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The sun began to set over the Pacific, giving everything and everyone that marvelous California glow and one thing became instantly apparent: the claims that some pundits make, claiming car-culture is a thing of the past, is a cold, boldfaced lie.

Instead, it lives on in the hearts of all who experienced this first day of Monterey car week, because it, after all, is much, much better than anyone ever would have expected.

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All photos © 2015 Sean Cridland. All rights reserved .